The Pothunters/Chapter 16
Certainly the Head was surprised.
He read the note again. No. There was no mistake. 'Thomson is not in the House.' There could be no two meanings about that.
'Go across to Mr Merevale's,' he said at last, 'and ask him if he would mind seeing me here for a moment.'
The butler bowed his head gently, but with more than a touch of pained astonishment. He thought the Headmaster might show more respect for persons. A butler is not an errand-boy.
'Sir?' he said, giving the Head a last chance, as it were, of realizing the situation.
'Ask Mr Merevale to step over here for a moment.'
The poor man bowed once more. The phantom of a half-smoked cigar floated reproachfully before his eyes. He had lit it a quarter of an hour ago in fond anticipation of a quiet evening. Unless a miracle had occurred, it must be out by this time. And he knew as well as anybody else that a relighted cigar is never at its best. But he went, and in a few minutes Mr Merevale entered the room.
'Sit down, Mr Merevale,' said the Head. 'Am I to understand from your note that Thomson is actually not in the House?'
Mr Merevale thought that if he had managed to understand anything else from the note he must possess a mind of no common order, but he did not say so.
'No,' he said. 'Thomson has not been in the House since lunchtime, as far as I know. It is a curious thing.'
'It is exceedingly serious. Exceedingly so. For many reasons. Have you any idea where he was seen last?'
'Harrison in my House says he saw him at about three o'clock.'
'According to Harrison, he was walking in the direction of Stapleton.'
'Ah. Well, it is satisfactory to know even as little as that.'
'Just so. But Mace--he is in my House, too--declares that he saw Thomson at about the same time cycling in the direction of Badgwick. Both accounts can scarcely be correct.'
'But--dear me, are you certain, Mr Merevale?'
Merevale nodded to imply that he was. The Head drummed irritably with his fingers on the arm of his chair. This mystery, coming as it did after the series of worries through which he had been passing for the last few days, annoyed him as much as it is to be supposed the last straw annoyed the proverbial camel.
'As a matter of fact,' said Merevale, 'I know that Thomson started to run in the long race this afternoon. I met him going to the starting-place, and advised him to go and change again. He was not looking at all fit for such a long run. It seems to me that Welch might know where he is. Thomson and he got well ahead of the others after the start, so that if, as I expect, Thomson dropped out early in the race, Welch could probably tell us where it happened. That would give us some clue to his whereabouts, at any rate.'
'Have you questioned Welch?'
'Not yet. Welch came back very tired, quite tired out, in fact and went straight to bed. I hardly liked to wake him except as a last resource. Perhaps I had better do so now?'
'I think you should most certainly. Something serious must have happened to Thomson to keep him out of his House as late as this. Unless--'
He stopped. Merevale looked up enquiringly. The Head, after a moment's deliberation, proceeded to explain.
'I have made a very unfortunate mistake with regard to Thomson, Mr Merevale. A variety of reasons led me to think that he had had something to do with this theft of the Sports prizes.'
'Thomson!' broke in Merevale incredulously.
'There was a considerable weight of evidence against him, which I have since found to be perfectly untrustworthy, but which at the time seemed to me almost conclusive.'
'But surely,' put in Merevale again, 'surely Thomson would be the last boy to do such a thing. Why should he? What would he gain by it?'
'Precisely. I can understand that perfectly in the light of certain information which I have just received from the inspector. But at the time, as I say, I believed him guilty. I even went so far as to send for him and question him upon the subject. Now it has occurred to me, Mr Merevale--you understand that I put it forward merely as a conjecture--it occurs to me--'
'That Thomson has run away,' said Merevale bluntly.
The Head, slightly discomposed by this Sherlock-Holmes-like reading of his thoughts, pulled himself together, and said, 'Ah--just so. I think it very possible.'
'I do not agree with you,' said Merevale. 'I know Thomson well, and I think he is the last boy to do such a thing. He is neither a fool nor a coward, to put it shortly, and he would need to have a great deal of both in him to run away.'
The Head looked slightly relieved at this.
'You--ah--think so?' he said.
'I certainly do. In the first place, where, unless he went home, would he run to? And as he would be going home in a couple of days in the ordinary course of things, he would hardly be foolish enough to risk expulsion in such a way.'
Mr Merevale always rather enjoyed his straight talks with the Headmaster. Unlike most of his colleagues he stood in no awe of him whatever. He always found him ready to listen to sound argument, and, what was better, willing to be convinced. It was so in this case.
'Then I think we may dismiss that idea,' said the Head with visible relief. The idea of such a scandal occurring at St Austin's had filled him with unfeigned horror. 'And now I think it would be as well to go across to your House and hear what Welch has to say about the matter. Unless Thomson returns soon--and it is already past nine o'clock--we shall have to send out search-parties.'
Five minutes later Welch, enjoying a sound beauty-sleep, began to be possessed of a vague idea that somebody was trying to murder him. His subsequent struggles for life partially woke him, and enabled him to see dimly that two figures were standing by his bed.
'Yes?' he murmured sleepily, turning over on to his side again, and preparing to doze off. The shaking continued. This was too much. 'Look here,' said he fiercely, sitting up. Then he recognized his visitors. As his eye fell on Merevale, he wondered whether anything had occurred to bring down his wrath upon him. Perhaps he had gone to bed without leave, and was being routed out to read at prayers or do some work? No, he remembered distinctly getting permission to turn in. What then could be the matter?
At this point he recognized the Headmaster, and the last mists of sleep left him.
'Yes, sir?' he said, wide-awake now.
Merevale put the case briefly and clearly to him. 'Sorry to disturb you, Welch. I know you are tired.'
'Not at all, sir,' said Welch, politely.
'But there is something we must ask you. You probably do not know that Thomson has not returned?'
'No. Nobody knows where he is. You were probably the last to see him. What happened when you and he started for the long run this afternoon? You lost sight of the rest, did you not?'
'And Thomson dropped out.'
'Ah.' This from the Headmaster.
'Yes, sir. He said he couldn't go any farther. He told me to go on. And, of course, I did, as it was a race. I advised him to go back to the House and change. He looked regularly done up. I think he ran too hard in the mile yesterday.'
The Head spoke.
'I thought that some such thing must have happened. Where was it that he dropped out, Welch?'
'It was just as we came to a long ploughed field, sir, by the side of a big wood.'
'Parker's Spinney, I expect,' put in Merevale.
'Yes, sir. About a mile from the College.'
'And you saw nothing more of him after that?' enquired the Headmaster.
'No, sir. He was lying on his back when I left him. I should think some of the others must have seen him after I did. He didn't look as if he was likely to get up for some time.'
'Well,' said the Head, as he and Merevale went out of the room, leaving Welch to his slumbers, 'we have gained little by seeing Welch. I had hoped for something more. I must send the prefects out to look for Thomson at once.'
'It will be a difficult business,' said Merevale, refraining--to his credit be it said--from a mention of needles and haystacks. 'We have nothing to go upon. He may be anywhere for all we know. I suppose it is hardly likely that he is still where Welch left him?'
The Head seemed to think this improbable. 'That would scarcely be the case unless he were very much exhausted. It is more than five hours since Welch saw him. I can hardly believe that the worst exhaustion would last so long. However, if you would kindly tell your House-prefects of this--'
'And send them out to search?'
'Yes. We must do all we can. Tell them to begin searching where Thomson was last seen. I will go round to the other Houses. Dear me, this is exceedingly annoying. Exceedingly so.'
Merevale admitted that it was, and, having seen his visitor out of the House, went to the studies to speak to his prefects. He found Charteris and Tony together in the former's sanctum.
'Has anything been heard about Thomson, sir?' said Tony, as he entered.
'That is just what I want to see you about. Graham, will you go and bring the rest of the prefects here?'
'Now,' he said, as Tony returned with Swift and Daintree, the two remaining House-prefects, 'you all know, of course, that Thomson is not in the House. The Headmaster wants you to go and look for him. Welch seems to have been the last to see him, and he left him lying in a ploughed field near Parker's Spinney. You all know Parker's Spinney, I suppose?'
'Then you had better begin searching from there. Go in twos if you like, or singly. Don't all go together. I want you all to be back by eleven. All got watches?'
'Good. You'd better take lanterns of some sort. I think I can raise a bicycle lamp each, and there is a good moon. Look everywhere, and shout as much as you like. I think he must have sprained an ankle or something. He is probably lying somewhere unable to move, and too far away from the road to make his voice heard to anyone. If you start now, you will have just an hour and a half. You should have found him by then. The prefects from the other Houses will help you.'
Daintree put in a pertinent question.
'How about trespassing, sir?'
'Oh, go where you like. In reason, you know. Don't go getting the School mixed up in any unpleasantness, of course, but remember that your main object is to find Thomson. You all understand?'
'Very good. Then start at once.'
'By Jove,' said Swift, when he had gone, 'what an unholy rag! This suits yours truly. Poor old Jim, though. I wonder what the deuce has happened to him?'
At that very moment the Headmaster, leaving Philpott's House to go to Prater's, was wondering the same thing. In spite of Mr Merevale's argument, he found himself drifting back to his former belief that Jim had run away. What else could keep him out of his House more than three hours after lock-up? And he had had some reason for running away, for the _conscia mens recti,_ though an excellent institution in theory, is not nearly so useful an ally as it should be in practice. The Head knocked at Prater's door, pondering darkly within himself.